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Inside the Relationship Between Man and Machine in 'The Imitation Game'

We talked to the director and editor of the film starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
(L-R) Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Allen Leech star in THE IMITATION GAME. Copyright: © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved. / Photo: Jack English

Caution: If you haven't seen The Imitation Game, this post contains spoilers. 

“Can machines think?” asked mathematician Alan Turing in his 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” This question is at the center of the now-infamous Turing test to determine if a machine has humanlike intelligence. Turing's test has since become the cornerstone of modern computer science and the study of artificial intelligence, inspiring generations of scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians to tread the same waters. Turing, however, never learned of his contribution to history, because on July 8, 1954, he committed suicide with a cyanide-laced apple.


Director Morten Tyldum knew of the Turing test, but the man who created it was a shadow of history. That is, until the script for The Imitation Game landed in his lap. “I thought I knew history really well. I was shocked with myself by how little of the story I knew and kind of saddened by it because it was a phenomenal story,” says Tyldum. “This really happened? The more you research it, the more obsessed you get.” Tyldum, who had never directed a British period film, let alone a film in English, knew that he had to share Turing’s story and do it justice because of its tragic ending. The first film adaptation of Turing's biography, The Imitation Gamewas born.

The tale that most people don’t know has all the ingredients of an action-packed thriller: Turing was a codebreaker in World War II, and helped to crack the Enigma cipher machine that the German military used to encode all of their communications. In the film, the mission seems insurmountable as Turing and team struggle to crack the code within 24 hours before the Germans reset their machines the following morning. The direness of the situation is intensely magnified by the sound of the ticking clock and war images taken directly from historical archives. All other narrative threads revolve around the main plotline, ultimately climaxing with the breaking of the code. Historians estimate that the success of Turing and Bletchley Park’s codebreakers shortened World War II by two to four years.


Developing the emotional nuances of Turing’s character was tricky, explains Tyldum. They were going off accounts from family members, written biographies, and Turing’s archive of correspondences. There were no film recordings of the mathematician for actor Benedict Cumberbatch to base his performance on. How would they portray Turing’s inner complexities and emotional depth without making him out to be machinelike, or a caricature of genius? They determined that Cumberbatch-as-Turing would have a slight stutter, an editorial decision that stemmed from the idea that Turing’s mind was constantly moving faster than he could utter his thoughts. Humorous moments needed to be respectful and never at the expense of turning Turing into a spectacle. “We never wanted the audience laughing at Turing,” adds Tyldum.

(L-R) Benedict Cumberbatch and Director Morten Tyldum on set of The Imitation Game © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

The emotional beats resound in one of the film's most heart-wrenching scenes: when the shots cut from a flashback of Turing as a young boy receiving news that his friend, Christopher, has died, to a scene of Turing as a man staring at his code-breaking computer—symbolically named Christopher. The death of Christopher was originally in the middle of the script, says Tyldum. “We had to move things around to make the narrative clearer, so that the emotional throughline [was] stronger. Everything comes from the loss of Christopher. We know this because he wrote Christopher’s mother for the rest of his life.” This juxtaposition of past and present, in fact, was constructed in the editing room by William Goldenberg, who recently won an Oscar for his editing work on Argo and received a nomination for Zero Dark Thirty.


In the film, Turing discusses the “imitation game” in a cell with a police officer after being apprehended for homosexual acts, then-illegal in 1950s Britain. “It’s a stupid question. Of course machines can’t think as people do. But, just because something thinks differently does that mean it’s not thinking?” He asks the police officer (and the audience), continuing, “Are you human or machine?”

Goldenberg purposefully kept Turing’s monologue as a long single shot: “The best decision was not to cut. You look for these moments of magic when you see that a movie is transcending itself, and you’re suddenly watching a real person. You build a scene around that.”

A test called the Lovelace 2.0 has been proposed as an alternative to the Turing test. This exam asks an artificial agent to create “creative artifacts” such as paintings, poetry, stories, or architectural designs, explains Mark O’Reidl, an associate professor at the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Tech. By testing the creative capacities of a computational system, the test could be a means of determining whether something is intelligent. “The creation of certain types of artifacts such as stories, require a wide repertoire of human-level intelligent capabilities,” he writes.

(L-R) Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in The Imitation Game. Photo: Jack English © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.


Many artists have already been experimenting with autonomous art-creating machines and artificial intelligence. For example, Paul-IX is an automated sketch-bot programmed to turn visual data into sketches. The bot’s human maker, Patrick Tresset, wrote, “The technological element of my practice aims to develop computational systems capable of autonomously producing artifacts that stand as artworks." For Paul-IX to pass the Lovelace 2.0 test, it would need to be creative without the help of Tresset.

If alive today, Turing, at the age of 104, would have received an official pardon for the persecution he faced for being homosexual, and witnessed the first same-sex marriage in Britain and the first computer to “pass” his test. A computer program named “Eugene” duped 10 out of 30 of its human judges into thinking it was human—the benchmark Turing defined in his test. David Auerbach of Slate cautions against thinking that this is a true indication of Eugene's humanity: “It does not understand anything of the conversation. Rather, it tries to avoid letting the judge control the conversation—that way, it has to respond as little as possible.” He adds, "The gut appeal of the Turing test remains, however."

“Turing brought up illusionary ideas about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive,” says Tyldum. “To me, his relationship with the code-breaking machine he built was the most important one in the movie.” Tyldum only deviated from the original designs of the real “Christopher,” known as “Bombe,” by adding extreme tangles of bright red wires “to signify blood veins,” he says.


Benedict Cumberbatch stars in "The Imitation Game" Photo: Jack English © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.


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